Where to begin.
So I went to a conference-esque thing over the weekend. I’m not gonna get into any specifics about names/titles/locations, because that’s not the interesting part to me (although I’m sure if you’re a shit, you could probably use the information in here to figure that sort of thing out, so to repeat: that is not the interesting part to me, and no amount of “was it this person? was it this place?” will MAKE it interesting to me).
Pretend this is like a fairy tale story I’m telling you, but in the original purpose of fairy tales, to teach the young what to be afraid of about adulthood. Back then it was mostly arranged marriage and now it’s mostly any gathering of more than four adults who don’t know each other very well. But this fairy tale is real and it happened to me! Exciting!
Where were we? Conference-esque thing! In another country and in a remote locale where I mostly don’t speak the local language very well and the locals mostly speak English okay-ish. VERY scenic. I became aware of and was invited to participate at this thing (we’ll call it EveryConf) when I attended FooCamp last year and one of EveryConf’s organizers was there and came up to me and said, “Courtney I run a thing called EveryConf you have to come to it.” And I said okay but then my work schedule got in the way so I had to back out and since I didn’t have a job when this year’s EveryConf invite went out, I figured, “networking opportunity”, and registered.
THE FIRST WARNING SIGNS:
One of the “deals” of EveryConf is I guess the organizers envision it as a sort of summer camp for adults. (There were structured group activities and one of them was coloring. Where Was The Sand Art, I ask you.) Adult Summer Camp Activities aren’t really my thing, but they also aren’t something I’m gonna refuse to participate in and thus ruin someone else’s enjoyment. I was there for the talking-to-interesting-adults and learning-new-shit-from-smart-people, and so if I had to tolerate some “two truths and a lie”-style activity time to get that, well, eh, I was already registered.
However, between the “send us some surprising truths about yourself!” email and one of the organizers tweeting about assembling both Cards Against Humanity decks AND PowerPoint Karaoke slides, I started to get an itchy sensation of discomfort. Not because any of these activities is wrong or bad! But because a lot of these activities are framed around people trying to be funny for each other, and when they’re trying to be funny for a room full of people they don’t entirely know…things can go off the rails in a spectacular variety of ways. We all are raised in roughly the same toxic sludge, and so in a moment of panic/anxiety/”oh god oh god why is nobody laughing yet”, it can be very easy to grab the first idea that pops into your head and use it as a joke…which is often the type of harmful bullshit about other types of people that I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to unlearn and distance myself from and remove from professional events such as EveryConf.
But! I was already registered, I’d paid my hundreds of dollars, I had arranged travel…it would be fine, right? It would be fine. After all, to say something at this point would be LOOKING FOR SOMETHING TO BE UPSET ABOUT, and while I’m accused of that consistently, my default is to attempt to let everything go and only speak up when on the verge of tears/vomiting. This obviously wasn’t THAT kind of situation, so chill Courtney, it’s all in your head.
MORE WARNING SIGNS
I get to the EveryConf site. This place is so remote I can’t even get my cell phone to do the expensive roaming thing. There is WiFi but the organizers won’t give out the password, since the “point” of the conference is to “be present” with the people at the event. This theme came up a couple of times in the talks too, this “disconnecting” so as to connect better with people around you, and please allow me to call bullshit on it here:
This is fucking bullshit and so lacking in intellectual rigor I’m tempted to compare advocating for “disconnecting” in preference for those in proximity to you with otherwise-intelligent people deciding not to vaccinate their children. (A) This idea supposes that the people in proximity to you aren’t fuckheads you want to get away from, (B) this is an idea that is only possible because of the existence of THE MOST AMAZINGLY LIFE-CHANGING THING TO HAPPEN IN OUR LIFETIMES aka the internet, and declining to participate in this thing in favor of only using the old way of communicating with people is such a hardcore-Luddite position to me that we’re back to the vaccines thing (I mean while you’re at it, why not abandon the telephone, too?), and (C) when I am in another country surrounded by strangers, don’t you fucking dare take away my only connection to people I love and trust aka my support network — or at least, don’t do that without providing ANY means of replicating said support network if I need it. (And when I say “I” here, I mean “anyone”. I’m sure there’s lots of reasons beyond mine that someone would want to know who on-site they can talk to if they have whatever problems they have (which again, wide and varied and beyond my knowing).)
(Someone more eloquent than I am wrote a whole article about the bullshit that is “going offline”, by the way, and you should read it:
“But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it
dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails
to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant
interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented
reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information,
physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off
and the online. It is wrong to say “IRL” to mean offline: Facebook is real
At one point during the very relaxed and enjoyable hangout time that happened before everyone showed up and EveryConf officially began, one of the organizers said, “Probably the most not politically correct thing we’ve got planned is Cards Against Humanity.” Again, CAH isn’t inherently bad or nuttin’, but last time I checked, the ONLY people saying “politically correct” these days are Men’s Rights Activists, white supremacists, and other fuckheads who think “freedom of speech” means “freedom from criticism”. But hey, I just got there, I was just meeting everyone, people seemed to like me, and I’d just had a 10-minute conversation with this very dude (who is the dude who invited me) about trying to get more women in attendance at tech events. This guy is on “my” side! Why would I go embarrassing him in front of people by being all, “and what do you mean when you say ‘politically correct’ exactly, 1990s Time Traveler?” Right? Let it go, Courtney, it’s cool, it’ll all be fine.
WAIT FOR IT…
Then EveryConf itself started, and with it, the “ice breakers”. Again, not my cup of tea, but not something I’m gonna sulk in the corner about like a high schooler. One of the activities involved breaking into small teams and each team asking other teams a set of questions. One of the questions that each team had to ask other people was, context-free, “Which is more powerful: thrust or lube?”. This is apparently a physics thing, when applied in an actual physics context, not in a “a bunch of grown ups who may or may not know each other interacting at an event they all paid money to attend” context. In this context, it’s juvenile and unnecessary. I rolled my eyes and let it go: new here, want to get along, trying to meet interesting people, have paid hundreds of dollars in registration and travel, let it go Courtney it’ll all be fine, etc.
One of the other activities involved coloring different tiles as a group, to be assembled together the next day. For no reason that I could tell, a guy at my table (white, middle-aged) started doing his “impression” of how Asian non-native English speakers pronounce their Ls and Rs.
Everyone else at my table looked away, shifted in their chairs, kept coloring, someone cleared their throat, someone else next to me said, “oh, geez” under their breath. I said, “That’s racist”, in my normal (non-hushed) voice. Captain Hilarity pretended not to hear me and wouldn’t look at me, but he stopped. Nobody else at my table said anything for a while, and when they did, it was to change the subject.
This is when I should have left, when I look back on things. Not even because of Captain Hilarity, but because I was surrounded by people who wouldn’t speak up even at the most pathetically simple, unthreatening example of racist bullshit. That’s not only not my crowd, it’s not a crowd that deserves my energy, and I should have bailed then.
And then the PowerPoint Karaoke started. (PowerPoint Karaoke is when you stand in front of a slide deck you haven’t seen before and have to make up a talk based on the slides.) Some of the slide decks (again, made in advance by the event organizers) had funny themes (adorable dogs, delayed-animation .gifs) but almost all of them had at least one or two slides with sad double-entendres, or text over images to imply a different (sexual) context, or pictures of animals mating. (Or sometimes all three. Bonus!)
So we’ve got a “not politically correct” organizer of an event with zero policies in place about boundaries or behavior putting together organized/regimented group activities that all feature juvenile sex jokes, and now this group activity about to happen features individuals trying to be funny on the fly in front of a group of people, some or all of whom they just met.
If you can guess what happened next, you get a gold star.
What happened next is Captain Hilarity got up there and said the theme of his talk was, “my time in prison.” And I groaned and my tablemates said, “what?” and I said, “we’re about to be treated to a lot of ‘hilarious’ rape jokes.” and they scoffed and said, “really?” And that’s exactly what he did. The first two slides were about yearning for freedom, and then three minutes or so about being raped by a man.
And everybody laughed. And the organizers did nothing, said nothing.
Yes. Yes, really.
The group had gone in the course of a few hours from, “one person I know and lots of new faces who I’m interested to meet!”, to, “the man who made a joke out of being raped, the rest of the crowd who laughed, and the organizers who didn’t stop it.” Oh, did I mention that the FooCamp where this EveryConf organizer met me is one of the places where I gave this talk? So, the one person in the room who knew I’m a rape survivor, the person with the power to get people to stop doing things, just let Captain Hilarity and Friends have their fun, and I was fresh out of places to turn for any support.
In part because I was already kinda up to HERE with the juvenile tee-hee-hee-SEX! bullshittery, in part because I’d been traveling for two days and was low on sleep, and in part because I was naively thinking I’d get to attend an event without having to steel myself against the possibility of someone behaving so poorly, so publicly, without consequence, I ended up frozen in my seat in the back of the room getting more and more nauseous. My hands started to shake, and all I could do was quietly break down why what Captain Hilarity was doing was bullshit in as analytical a way as I could, to keep myself from crying. The guy next to me would nod along and say, “yeah, I know, this is really gross.” I think he thought he was helping, but I just kept wanting someone to take the mic away. I wanted it to not be me, for once, to have to leave the crowd and stop being a person and start being a fun-killer. I wanted someone to speak up on my behalf because I was afraid that the only thing to come out of my mouth would be angry sobs, and I was a little afraid these people would laugh at that, too.
Instead, everyone laughed and cheered and clapped for Captain Hilarity. I continued to shake a little and feel that empty, swirling feeling in my stomach that I only ever get when triggered or harassed. (That nauseous lack of appetite lasted for another three days.) Eventually I went back to my room, cried, dry heaved a little, and felt very, very alone. And I very, very badly wanted to be able to connect with someone who wasn’t near me. I wanted to be able to email my spouse (or, dare to dream, hear his voice), or text my friends, or reach out on Twitter, or basically do anything to remind myself that this isolation was temporary and that I wasn’t alone in feeling what I felt. You know, all that shit the internet is fantastic at. Connecting. I weighed the likelihood that I could pack up and start getting myself back home that night. I decided to stay long enough to give my talk Saturday, eat whatever food I could get down, and leave bright and early Sunday morning.
THE CALL OUT
It just so happened my talk was about why I made my Twitter bot, The 101-A-Tron. I actually already had a slide in there about how sometimes people don’t think about the impact of what they say on the people they’re saying it about. And so I decided to add in a couple of lines about Captain Hilarity’s rape joke set and the crowd’s participation in it.
“I think if you asked these kids using the #faggot hash tag if they hated gay people or something, a lot would say no…just like I imagine if I surveyed you all about whether you found the act of a person getting raped to be funny to you, you’d say, “of course not”, and yet I found myself surrounded by a lot of you last night laughing it up while someone made jokes about being raped. I call this the ‘can’t see the trees for the forest’ problem; you think of these groups of people as being Out There somewhere, and can’t conceive that an individual from that group might be within earshot…” And I moved on with the rest of my talk, and I only ALMOST cried and my voice didn’t break too much, I think.
My talk was close to the afternoon break, during which I decided I was having more fun beating the game Dungeon Village on my phone than I was being surrounded by the people who laughed, so I skipped the last batch of presentations and only popped back into the main room right as things were wrapping up before dinner. Several people came over to me and told me they liked my talk and that they were really grateful I said something. “I thought it was just me who had a problem with it”, over and over. One woman said something about, “I get off-color jokes, but when you get into potentially triggering territory, it’s not okay”, and I almost asked her if we could go somewhere private so I could cry on her, because by then I was grateful to be around someone who even knew what triggering *was*.
The EveryConf organizer, who created an event full of juvenile sexual jokes to help people “connect”, knowingly invited a rape survivor to said event, and then let someone tell three minutes of detailed, vulgar, descriptive jokes about being raped by a man without doing anything about it, sought me out and told me he was really glad I said something. “I felt so uncomfortable when he was doing that, it was not okay at all”, said the man who invited everyone to EveryConf, was its emcee, and undoubtedly had the most authority of anyone in the room to define and enforce the boundaries of what was or was not acceptable behavior at his event.
This is when I knew I would never be coming back to EveryConf, and that I’d be privately warning away anyone I knew and liked from attending. Again, not because of Captain Hilarity: there will always be Captains Hilarity in the world who you will encounter (and sometimes, you will BE him, even on accident). I won’t be back because when you create an event, you take on the responsibility of what happens there, and the EveryConf organizers have failed in that responsibility and don’t even seem to realize it. I do not think you are responsible for everyone’s behavior or anything puppet-master-ish, but I think you are responsible for defining the intellectual “space” everyone’s behavior is conducted in. You create and enforce the boundaries. You define what is okay and what is not. And if you refuse to own that power, then you are an unsafe event runner, and I don’t trust you.
After dinner, there were multiple activities planned that the organizers refused to name or describe in advance. Just, “everyone meet at X place at Y time, and something cool will happen.” Given EveryConf’s track record for spontaneity thus far, I had zero faith that they would handle things well if they went off the rails again, so I didn’t participate the rest of the night. I finished beating Dungeon Village, got another fitful night of sleep, woke up before dawn, packed, and got the fuck out of there.
The EveryConf organizers clearly know on some level that they fucked up. My point of contact with the event emailed me yesterday, and while my mom raised me better than to reproduce private emails on the internet, I feel the need to summarize the high points as part of this post-mortem on How Not To Handle This Sort Of Thing:
(A) apologizing for Captain Hilarity’s behavior
(B) attempt to explain/justify Captain Hilarity’s behavior
(C) thanking me again for speaking up
(D) noting with pleasure that I didn’t “bring the mood of the afternoon down” while speaking up
(E) acknowledging that it’s not my fucking job to do this stuff and it sucks that I had to
(F) claiming that this happened as a consequence of the “openness” he strives for at EveryConf
(G) offer to refund my money because he knows I didn’t get what I wanted out of the weekend
Again, that is only a general summary, and the only reason it’s here at all is because I do think the EveryConf folks are trying to do the “right thing” here, and I think that lots of conference organizers are likewise trying to do that, and so I want to break down a little why I have problems with this approach, as a learning exercise. If I could figure out a way to do that without giving a bit of detail about how EveryConf is trying to resolve the situation, I would do it that way instead.
In case you’re looking at this going, “what, this is fine.”…No. First, let’s talk about “openness”. I think I get what they’re going for — free-flowing exchange of ideas, some of which conflict but are allowed to coexist. You can’t have that sort of openness when it comes to respect for other attendees, where some people are openly respectful of others and some people openly aren’t. When you hold your event’s doors open to “all”, you are going to have to make some calls about who those doors are closed to — because they WILL be closed to some people. If folks knew how to act right no matter their differences, it would be a very different world and this would be a very different blog. So who do you pick? Do you pick the people making your event a potentially unsafe place for other attendees? Or do you pick the people who felt unsafe?
In this case, they’re picking the first option, it appears. Don’t get me wrong, I am totally taking them up on that refund. But I’d much rather have gotten an email that went something like:
(A) letting me know he’d talked to Captain Hilarity directly about his behavior
(B) apologizing for not speaking up himself at the time
(C) thanking me for speaking up instead
(D) regret that I had to do his job for him
(E) confession that the EveryConf organizers are rethinking how they handle boundaries around content
(F) invitation to talk further if I have any other feedback
(G) expression of hope that EveryConf can course-correct enough that I’ll be enthusiastic to attend next year
But instead, we have the refund and assertion that the event and I didn’t get along for mysterious, uncorrectable reasons. Rather than change the event, it’s way easier to just cash me out and assume I’ll never come back, and thus won’t be there to risk bringing the mood down again. Maude forbid the MOOD be brought down when people act way, way the fuck out of line. Gotta make sure people feel warm and happy when you’re calling them out for making you feel cold and angry.
So there you have it. More bridges burned because I can’t take a fucking joke, amirite? Hell of a way to connect with people. The moral of this story is: don’t do this shit if you run an event. Don’t pretend like everything will be fine and everyone will be relaxed and groovy and that all of their boundaries will be your boundaries will be each others’ boundaries. That is a really naive set of assumptions to make. Don’t abdicate all responsibility for running an event as if you’ll never have to handle a problem; plan out how you’ll handle different types of problems in advance. Be a grownup. Be aware that when you sexualize content in a room full of professional adults, it makes shit weird and uncomfortable for lots of people — and the people it’s NOT uncomfortable for, you probably are going to have other, more serious boundary problems with, so consider not inviting those fuckheads in the first place.
If you want to get a group of people together to laugh at two zebras mating and giggle at jokes at the expense of others because they’re “SO wrong, tee hee!”, you can do that! It’s called a group vacation! Don’t sell me a ticket to it.
Obviously Captain Hilarity avoided me the rest of the time we were in the same room together and never apologized, not that I would expect anything different from such a gentle man as he.
(photo by TheGirlsNY)